Qatar Takes to the Global Stage

Qatar may be hosting the FIFA World Cup in nine years’ time, but it plans to take centre stage for much longer than that, writes Business Traveller’s Rose Dykins.

The scale of capital city Doha’s development is mind-boggling. From its humble roots as a pearl-fishing port surrounded by endless desert, the discovery of oil in the late 1930s and natural gas in the 1970s led to the rapid expansion of the nineties that created a new cityscape of glinting structures along the Corniche. And now, having enjoyed a sustained period of economic growth – in 2011 Qatar’s GDP growth rate was almost 19% (the UK’s was just 0.8%) – it is taking its next stride forward.

A five-year national development strategy for 2011-2016 aims to achieve “balanced and sustainable growth” through “responsible use of resources and continuous modernisation and development of public institutions to ensure high-quality public services”. The wider picture is set out in Qatar’s National Vision 2030, which states that by this time the country will be “capable of sustaining its own development and providing for a high standard of living for all of its people for generations to come”.

Securing the accolade of hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2022 has been a big driving factor in deciding where investment will be placed – and when it will be fulfilled. Aside from the nine new stadiums being built across the country (plus three more being renovated), the coming decade will see a boom in hotel openings. “More than $100bn of infrastructure is due to be completed before the World Cup,” says Russell Meara, account director for Qatar Tourism in the UK. “There will be 77 new hotels, providing 85,000 rooms.”

These include Doha’s first Premier Inn, due to open next year, as well as the kind of high-end addresses the city is more commonly accustomed to – Shangri-La and Traders are both set to debut this year, while St Regis, Crowne Plaza, Intercontinental and Hilton Hotels and Resorts all opened last year. Four Seasons is unveiling a second hotel in the city in 2014.

Following the opening of the ultra-modern Qatar National Convention Centre at the end of 2011, the 90,000 sqm Doha Exhibition and Convention Centre is set to open this year in the West Bay area of the city, and will connect to the Sheraton Doha Resort and Convention hotel via an underground tunnel.

Big investment is also being made in transport infrastructure. Having been scheduled to be unveiled this year, the New Doha International airport, managed by national carrier Qatar Airways, is now expected to open towards the end of 2013. A 15-station metro system is due for completion in 2016.

Whilst putting such facilities in place will enhance what Doha already offers as a business hub, it’s hoped that the FIFA World Cup will transform the city into something it has not been widely seen as – a holiday destination. The Qatar Tourism Authority’s goal is to increase leisure tourism by 20% over the next five years. Considering that 95% of its visitors are currently here on business, it has some way to go to reach that target.

Helping to draw people in are world-renowned cultural institutions such as the Museum of Islamic Art, where displays of intricately adorned objects reveal the importance of art in everyday life in Qatar. There’s also a general consensus that compared with some of its neighbours in the Gulf, Doha has retained more of its ethnic and historical authenticity.

 

The challenge Doha faces is creating attractions that have an enduring mass appeal. This is perhaps why investing in world-class sport facilities that are capable of hosting global tournaments has been paramount to Doha’s agenda.

Four years before Doha won the FIFA World Cup bid, the city hosted the 2006 Asian Games – a multi-event athletics tournament that welcomed 10,000 competitors from 45 countries. It then hosted the FINA Diving World Cup in 2009 – which will return in 2014 – and the AFC Asian Cup in 2011. Qatar also bid to host the Olympics in both 2016 and 2020 – both failed, but such are the country’s aspirations, a third bid for 2024 is still being funded.

A 25-minute drive from the centre (traffic permitting) will bring you to the Aspire Zone. The Torch hotel, a colossal mesh-metal tower shaped like an egg-timer, is the first thing you will see – the 300-metre-tall structure bore the flames of the torch for the 2006 Asian Games at its top. Officially opened in June, it has 167 rooms and is a member of the Leading Hotels of the World. By night, multicoloured kinetic light displays illuminate its exterior, acting as a beacon for its sporty surrounds.

Ascend to the top and you can enjoy 360-degree views of the vast area that makes up the Aspire Zone. You can spy on the 50,000-capacity Khalifa International Stadium, the 15,500-seat Aspire Dome sport arena, the Aspire Sports Academy for Sports Excellence (with seven outdoor football pitches), the Hamad Aquatic Centre, complete with two Olympic-sized swimming pools and two diving pools, and the lush, 88-hectare Aspire park – encircled by both a running track and a horse-riding trail. Guests at the Torch can use the facilities for free (squash, basketball, volleyball and handball venues are also available, along with sports rehabilitation services) and the hotel has proved a popular location for winter camps for several European and Australian football teams.

Elsewhere, work has begun on developing Lusail City, a self-contained 38 sq km eco-city about 50km from the centre, where the opening and final matches of the FIFA World Cup will be held in a 86,250-capacity stadium that will reportedly “represent a quantum leap in terms of football stadium design”. Named after the Arabic for “desert flower”, Lusail is being designed and developed by Doha-based company Qatari Diar, with the first phases scheduled for completion in 2015.

So what will the FIFA World Cup 2022 be remembered for? In its bid, Qatar proposed to stage the first ever carbon-neutral Cup. “The new stadiums will have a solar panel system whereby energy will be used to [power] air conditioning for players and fans,” Meara says. “All stadiums will have air conditioning using environmentally friendly technology.”

Despite efforts such as these to counter the country’s soaring summer temperatures of up to 50ºC, concerns still remain about whether it will prove unbearably hot for international visitors – and the players. At the time of going to press, FIFA vice-presidents were debating whether the tournament should be moved to winter months for the first time in history, or whether matches should be played at night.

Come 2017, when the results of the 2024 bid are announced, Qatar’s huge budget, cutting-edge technology and staggering ability to transform itself could make it a very exciting Olympic host.

Additional information